long tail illustration

How to improve your search engine ranking


When looking for information on a new product or service, whether as consumers or for the company that they work at, the first place many people go is Google. A much smaller number may go to Bing or another search engine, but on the websites that I’ve worked on the analytics typically show that 80-90 percent or more of search traffic is from Google. So getting the highest possible ranking on Google can be very important in driving new people to your site who are looking for what you sell – now.

And being high on page one of the search results is critical because a majority of clicks happen on just the top three links on the search results page (SERP). The last couple links on page one typically only get a few percent of the clicks. And while 10 or 15 years ago people might have looked at the second or even third SERP, today the saying is “The best place to hide a dead body is on page two of Google search results.”

If you’re in a highly competitive industry it can be hard, if not impossible, to gain high page one rankings for broad industry keywords such as “marketing” or “hotel” or “cloud hosting”. In these situations you may have better luck working for long-tail keyword phrases.

What’s a long-tail keyword phrase?

long tail illustration

The distribution of results in many areas, including search, often looks like this. A few terms (on the left) get a high number of requests and clicks – these are called “head terms” – and then there are many more “long-tail” terms that get a lower number of individual results but, cumulatively, may be greater in volume than the head terms.

For example, I was once working with a regional investment banking firm in Boston. They wanted to get high search rankings, but we told them that it would not be possible to get high rankings on head terms like “investment banking” – those head terms links were dominated on page one by national players like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. However, we could likely get them high rankings on long-tail keyword phrases such as “Boston investment bank”, or keywords related to their specific services such as “healthcare investment banking”. The number of searches may be much lower, but the likelihood of getting a high rank and a qualified prospect to your site is much higher.

And people often search with long keyword phrases. While 55-60% of searches are still just one or two word phrases, over 40% of searches contain three keywords or more. And from a demographic point of view my suspicion is that the people using the longer keyword phrases are also more tech savvy; so if that’s your target market that could be especially important.

The keyword phrases that people use also may tell something about where they are in their buying process, and you can adjust your content accordingly. People searching on broad industry terms are usually early in their self-education. As they learn more they tend to search for particular solutions. And finally they are focused on information about the companies on their short-list of vendors. This gives you an idea of the kind of content that may be most useful in each stage of the buyer’s research:

search keyword matrix

How to Get High Search Rankings

Search engines are the everyday technology miracle that we quickly have come to take for granted. It’s estimated that Google uses over 200 factors when it generates and ranks its search results from billions of Web pages in less than a second. But Google doesn’t say exactly what those couple hundred factors are, or how they’re weighted. If they did it would encourage people to game their system.

It does say that it tweaks its algorithm virtually every day, and there’s usually at least two or three major, named upgrades to its search algorithm every year. Given this, and changes that you’re making to your website, changes on external sites linking to yours, and activity from competitors and others in your industry, you’re likely to see your rankings move up and down over time. SEO is never done.

What has been clear for several years is that Google is focused on generating the most useful results and links for the person searching. It ranks and promotes useful content and demotes what it sees as low-quality content or spam. And keyword phrases in the content are not as important as they used to be since Google is increasingly good at semantic analysis and understanding context and meaning, but used properly they are still likely to help.

There are two major types of ways that you can affect your search ranking: on-page factors and off-page factors.

Every couple years Moz surveys dozens of the best search marketers, and runs its own correlations, to try to determine which are the most important factors. (Remember: these are correlations and not causations, but it’s probably the best that we have to go on.) The top two factors are off-page (or off-site) items: Domain-level links and Page-level links. But following closely behind are on-page factors such as content, keywords, readability and load speed. So let’s look at how to improve your results with both off- and on-page improvements.

On-Page Search Ranking Factors

On-page, or on-site, factors are the easiest and quickest for you to affect. So even if they rank slightly below off-page factors, they are likely to get your fastest results.

Researching and deciding on the keyword phrases that you’re going to focus on is the first step. A great tool for this is the Google AdWords Keyword Planner. Here are some of the results it delivers when looking nationally for keywords related to Thai restaurants:

Google AdWords keyword tool

Two things immediately jump out at me: (1) people search for “Thai food” about twice as much as for “Thai restaurants” or the singular “Thai restaurant” (in searches Google will probably treat the singular and plural keywords the same), and (2) there’s not a lot of competition for paid ads for either. So I’m going to focus more effort on content related to “Thai food” than “Thai restaurant”. Google will automatically handle those “near me” searches, too, by automatically showing restaurants in my city.

From your keyword research create a list of terms that you’re going to focus for ranking on. Unless you dominate an industry or area, these should be long-tail phrases.

Now that you know which keyword phrases you want to rank for, the most important thing that you can do is create unique, useful content that people want to read, share and link to. Remember: Google likes quality content, so deliver that to it. Using a reasonable amount of keywords in your content is important, but don’t use so many that Google thinks that you’re trying to spam it. Keyword phrases in the content are not as important as they used to be since Google is increasingly good at understanding context and meaning. Content, including keywords, near the top of the page are more important than those farther down. And Google doesn’t like duplicate content, so avoid using the same content in more than one place on or off of your site.

There are various tags that can reinforce for Google what you think this page is about.

  • The most important tag is the page Title tag. When you’re looking at a page it’s the text that displays when you hover your cursor over that page’s browser tab. Having a keyword-rich Title tag can do a lot to improve a page’s ranking. On the other hand, when I go to a website and see that the Title tag on the homepage is “home” or just the name of the company or, even worse, the site URL, I know that no serious SEO work has been done on that site.
  • Description – The Description tag may or may not be a ranking factor, but it usually appears on the SERP so that can affect click throughs to your site. Unlike the Title tag, which can just be keyword phrases, the Description tag should be a readable sentence or two that includes a few keywords. Don’t use more than 155 characters.
  • H1, H2, etc: Add keywords to the page header tags to reinforce their importance.
  • The Title and Description tags are hidden in the page’s code. You usually can edit the header tags while creating the page’s content.

And link pages together on your site with keyword-focused anchor text (the text of the link); you can also use keywords in your site’s navigation.

That is some of the low-hanging SEO fruit.

SEO Site Audit

Now we get into some of the more technical aspects of optimizing a site for Google. And there are various important matters to look into:

  • If you’re one of the few companies that isn’t already use Google Analytics on your website, set it up. Obviously GA isn’t just a tool for you: it gives Google detailed information on how many people are coming to your site, how long they spend on each page, etc. All of these could affect their rankings of pages.
  • Check to see if your site is being indexed. An easy way to do this is to go to Google and use the Site: command in the Google search engine. For example, go to Google and search for site:mydomain.com (replace “my domain” with your domain, of course). See if Google displays your site’s pages. You can also use Google’s Search Console to make sure your site is being indexed.
  • Robots.txt file: Make sure that your robots.txt file, which controls what search engines can index on your site, isn’t excluding sections that you want public. Sometimes a robots.txt file inadvertently gets left on when a new site launches. For some inexplicable reason the tech team at a company I was working with added one to a live site that instructed search engines to exclude the entire site! Their search rankings totally tanked until we removed it.

Your robots.txt file is found at www.yourdomain.com/robots.txt. If it says this, then search engines would ignore everything on your site:

User-agent: *

Disallow: /

  • Site Speed: Google cares about not just high quality content but a good user experience. It penalizes pages that load slowly. You can test the site’s loading speed with Google’s tool at- https://developers.google.com/speed/pagespeed/insights/
  • Mobile version: Worldwide over half of Google searches are now on mobile. Google now thinks mobile first and penalizes sites that don’t have a mobile-friendly version. This will typically – and ideally for SEO purposes — be done with a responsive website design, although you could instead have an m. site.
  • URLs
      • Keep your page URLs short, using keywords and hyphens instead of underlines
      • Avoid subdomains, such as blog.mydomain.com. Google treats them as separate sites that don’t share the home domain’s authority. And put your blog on your main domain, not as a totally separate domain!


Google’s Universal SERPs may include links, snippets of information, summaries of Wikipedia listings, image previews, videos, etc. Getting an image included in the top image search results can be very valuable.

Google Universal Search SERP

The two primary things you can do to improve rankings with images – and the appearance of your images in Google images results — are to have a descriptive alt tag and file name for each image; don’t have an image file name like image993392.jpg! Also, remember that Google can’t read the text on images so use HTML text rather than images in general for headers, links, etc. on your site.


Videos: to improve the searchability – and accessibility — of your videos, include a transcript for each video.

While backlinks, or links to your site from other sites, can be very valuable to your search ranking, the sites that you link out to can affect your ranking, too. Only link to relevant, quality external sites.

Finally, make it easy for Google to find every page on your site with an XML sitemap

Here are a few tools to help you manage your site for search engine ranking.

Off-Page Search Ranking Factors

Twenty years ago – in 1996 – Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin had their big insight: that links to a site or page were a kind of vote from the rest of the Internet on the value of their content. To this day, according to the Moz report, SEOs still consider external links to be the most important factor in the ranking of a page. Links to your site from high quality external sites will improve your search rankings.

This is an easy one: if you haven’t already, create a Google+ page and link it to your website. After all, it is Google. Use their tools: one hand washes the other.

Guest blogging on high-quality sites can be a very effective way to improve the rankings of your site’s pages. It’s not that hard to do, either. While they won’t usually pay, many industry blogs are looking for content. If you have something intelligent, well-written and reasonably new to say, you can likely find a home for it on an industry blog. It may not be accepted by the first blog that you contact (hey, Harry Potter was turned down by a dozen publishers) but even those rejections may lead to contacts and insights that lead to them publishing your future blog posts.

And don’t give up. You never know what a blog might be looking for. For example, I wanted to publish an interview I had done about the brain science of content marketing. I approached a major blog that had published several of my pieces before but they told me that they had an iron clad rule against publishing interviews except when done by someone on their staff; they had found that outsiders were often using interviews to promote their clients. Even though my interview was with a person at another agency – a competitor, if anything, and certainly not a client – they would not budge. So I approached another major blog and their editor said that they had just been talking about how they wanted to publish more interviews and they were happy to use it.

The process is pretty simple. First make a list of the major, high quality blogs in your industry that get a lot of traffic. See what they’re publishing and would be likely to be interested in. And check their posts to see if the credit for guest authors includes a “follow” link back to their site. You’ll have to look at the page source to make sure that it’s not a nofollow link. It’s that follow link that’s most important to you. I find that typically only about two percent of people who read a post will actually click on the link to come to my site, but the follow link passes important SEO fairy dust from their site to yours.

It’s usually easy to find out who the editor of the blog is. Send them your post with a short email; I never send just ideas. They may accept it, they may reject it, or they may say that they’d be interested if you made certain changes. If they reject it and don’t tell you why you could politely ask why. And if I don’t hear from them in two or three weeks I politely remind them of my submission; at the least they’ll probably then tell me when they expect to be able to review it. Have I mentioned that you should be patient and polite?

If they publish it be sure that you share that in your social media channels. One hand washes the other.

This gets easier as you go along as you can start to say in your email, “I’ve already been published by X, Y and Z blogs; I hope you will find this a good fit for your blog.”

The more quality domains linking to your site the more authority it has, and the higher your content is likely to be ranked. So beyond manual link building is a valuable, if time consuming, activity to engage in. And, no, there’s no way to fully automate this.

First, find the mentions of your company on other sites.

Be prepared: you may find a very depressing of mentions of your company, including on spammy sites that have nothing to do with your industry, and may have even stolen your content. However, that’s not our primary concern, yet.

You want to work on the high quality sites first. You could use the Domain Authority tool in Moz Pro, or look for how much traffic the site gets relative to yours on Alexa, or the SEO Review Tools website authority checker, or some other tools. Look for sites ranked equal to or higher than yours. (You may want to use a spreadsheet for all this!)

If there’s a link to your site, great – you can move on to the next site. If there is a mention of you but no link you need to contact the webmaster of the site and ask them to please add a link from your mention to your site, or to the particular content that they referenced. Make it easy for them: give them the URL of the specific page that your mention is on. If they do, great. If they don’t, you might ask a second time after a few days, but there’s not much you can do about it so just move on.

You’ll likely be more successful with this with recent mentions so you should also create an alert for your company name with Google Alerts or a similar tool and then reach out to sites that newly mention you but don’t have a link to your site.

The next step in your link building is to do an analysis of the backlinks to the sites of your competitors and then seeking to get links to yours from the quality sites. Maybe they’re getting a backlink from a blog that you could guest blog for. Or they’re mentioned in a list of vendors that you should be included in. Or they’re in an online directory that you should add yourself to.

Finally, be sure that you’re using social media to promote your content. While Matt Cutts from Google has said that they’re wary about crawling social media, tweets are included in search results, a professional’s LinkedIn profile is often one of the top links on SERP on their name, and Facebook pages show up in SERPs, too. There appears to be a strong correlation between a strong social media presence and high search rankings. Even if it doesn’t help your search ranking, the worst than can happen is that your content gets more visibility from the social shares anyway.

These are some of the most important SEO techniques – and way more than most sites are doing. You can do more to improve a site’s search ranking, of course. The Moz report lists many more areas you could likely improve on.

All of this, of course, is from the point of view of what you can do to improve your search rankings. If you’d like to see how Google thinks about the problem of how to crawl, index and rank billions of pages and then instantly return relevant results to a query, this talk by one of their senior engineers is fascinating. It also shows the limits of big data: they still need human reviewers to help them figure out if they’re doing a good job.

SEO is a marathon, not a sprint. Follow these recommendations conscientiously over time – especially the creation of valuable content on, or linked to, your site – and you should see results.

Some useful SEO tools